The last vestiges of farm culture sporadically dot dense urban sprawl; a sharp contrast to the thousands of acres of celery farms, strawberry patches and orange groves that once made up the landscape in the county’s early years.
Little is left of the industry that laid roots for Orange County, but an unexpected bastion of rural life remains at the James A. Musick Facility.
Although the Sheriff’s Department temporarily halted custody operations to make way for two new state-funded housing facilities slated, in part, to expand the department’s ability to house inmates with mental health issues, there is still much activity on site.
On a recent balmy July morning, Farm Supervisor Orlando R. Chacon jumped off his John Deere tractor and walked through the rows of watermelon, surveying which were ready for picking. Some had already been burst open by overzealous birds, leaving behind chunks of watermelon flesh for honey bees to happily claim seconds on.
The crew of five worked fast against the dissipating marine layer saving them from the summer sun. When they finished, the watermelons were inspected, washed and placed in crates for pickup later that day.
Every morning, the crew tends to the needs of the farm. They plant and harvest, fertilize and water, propagate and transplant. Dozens of varietals of fruits, vegetables and nuts find a home on the 12 acres of land hugging now-empty inmate barracks. Rows of cantaloupe and watermelon take up the west side, while blackberry bushes, figs, pineapple and grape vines climbing up a handmade trellis grow to the northeast. When the seasons change, new crops will be planted.
At its peak production, Chacon oversaw about 48 crews of farmhands and inmates working 105 acres and a poultry operation that turned out 7,500 eggs a day. In its earliest years in the 1960s, the Musick farm also ran beef and pork production to feed the jails’ entire inmate population.
The farm was, and remains, a coveted assignment among inmates who value the extra time outdoors and the hands-on work.
Much like the county’s dwindling agriculture landscape, the Musick farm has downsized over the years, but it has adopted a more altruistic mission.
While some of the crops supplement food supplies for Juvenile Hall, the Farm donates more than 200,000 pounds of fresh crops every year to the Second Harvest Food Bank, and also supplies hundreds of pumpkins for special needs students to decorate at Halloween.
The crew says they see their weekly produce delivery as one way the Sheriff’s Department gives back to the community it serves.
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